HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Educational Technology in Jewish Day Schools: Why Foundations and Educators are (and should be) Interested

by Eli Kannai Issue: Technology and Jewish Education
TOPICS : Technology

Every once in a while new emerging technologies “rock our world” - personal computers entered the market in the 80’s, the internet sprang into action in the early 90’s - and just as our lives have changed, so has education. The educational world does not always embrace change enthusiastically, but it is inevitable that changes in the way teachers and students live will change the way schools educate. Computers and networks are now part of the classroom in public and private schools across the modern world, although even in Jewish day schools they are used more for the advancement of general studies than of Jewish studies.

The rapid pace of change continues. Over the last few years new technologies such as broadband, wireless, large screens and touch pads have improved and come down in price. A new generation of users more comfortable with technology make better use of new and existing capabilities. As the world has turned from analog to digital, people now lead a “digital life style”, carrying digital music, books, lectures, photos, videos and files on small devices, or storing it all on the web. Jewish studies and day schools simply cannot afford to lag too far behind.

Educational technology need not be a necessary evil; it can also be an enormously useful tool for overcoming limitations such as space and time, and in turning information into knowledge. As AVI CHAI’s Chief Educational Technology Officer, I have been involved in a number of interesting educational technology initiatives that show some of the promise for the future. For example, the Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan University has partnered with eight day schools, some from RAVSAK, that are located in relatively small Jewish communities, to “bring” expert teachers in Israel into the classroom via video conferencing. One technology leads to another as some teachers use blogs to maintain communication between meetings and to submit homework assignments.

Other projects draw on our reputation as the “people of the book”. It is almost impossible to compare the “cool factor” of commercial games with Jewish computer software, since “cool” is fleeting, while content is enduring. But many books are now available on line, some as text, some in audio format, and some with a multimedia make-over. AVI CHAI joined the effort to place important Jewish content on line via Mikranet (www.mikranet.org.il), a project targeting Israeli Bible students run by the three leading Israeli organizations: CET (Center for Educational Technology), Gesher and Snunit. This website features a searchable database of the Bible with some commentaries, Mishna, Talmud, Tanchuma, the Rambam and more. Jewish liturgical music was brought online with the website “Invitation to Piyut” (www.piyut.org.il), also developed by Snunit, with hundreds of Piyut texts and renditions. More efforts to build a Jewish reference library on the net are in the works. Placing content on the net is key since these are the building blocks for future use by educators and learners. Jewish Family and Life! offers the Babaganewz magazine website, www.babaganewz.com, which now contains more than six years of materials for both teachers and students, ranging from lesson plans to games, both for online use and for classroom use. The Tu Bishvat Seder placed on the Babaganewz website in 2004 was downloaded over 1500 times this year. We are now the people of the book on the web, too.

User generated content, sometimes referred to as “Web 2.0,” also lends itself well to education. In 2001 Torah Umesorah’s “creative learning pavilion” was brought online and is now using a new website, www.chinuch.org, where educators share lesson plans and materials. The site hosts thousands of items, with about half a million downloaded since August 2002.

In late September 2006 the AVI CHAI Foundation announced a competitive Educational Technology Experiment grant, asking day school educators to consider pedagogic challenges that could be addressed by technology. By the end of November, over 180 ideas were submitted, far beyond our expectations. The ideas involve use of Smartboards and websites, video and audio, computer games and small devices such as cell phones or personal media players. The high number of submissions, from all across North America, and across all Jewish affiliations, may indicate a stir in the field. The information about this program was disseminated solely by web-based methodologies (emails, listservs, websites and blogs) reaching teachers and educators directly, sometimes bypassing school administrators.

There is no need for prophecy to foresee that day schools will continue to change over the next ten years, as they have in the last ten. As educators change the way they live, they will change the way they teach. Some of the changes already evident are deeply rooted in Jewish values: greater integration between home and school and the need for all of us to be life-long learners. What other changes can we expect? I cannot tell you. But I do believe that, going forward, educators have the opportunity to lead the way, with philanthropy making an effort to serve as an enabler for these changes.

Eli Kannai is the Chief Educational Technology Officer for the AVI CHAI Foundation. Eli can be reached at ekannai@avichaina.org.

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